No more free access to the N&O?

The News & Observer is offering test drives of the beta version of its new Web site. My quick critique: It’s clean, easy to navigate and considerably less fussy/busy than the existing site. My immediate question: Will the new site live behind a pay wall?

Newspapers have long had trouble getting comfortable with their Web sites. In the beginning, newspapers treated their online editions as annoyances at best, and as tip sheets for competitors at worst. When the industry finally gave in to the inevitability of the Internet, its reaction was to make readers jump through cumbersome registration and log-in hoops for access. Eventually sensing the error of that approach (which helped cause the N&O to lose its online lead to WRAL.com, for instance), newspapers overcompensated in the other direction, making it all too easy for readers to cancel their print subscriptions and get their news exclusively online.

Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way. My former boss, Steve Brill, earlier this year founded a company that seeks to help newspapers collect revenue from online readers, and numerous companies reportedly have signed on — no surprise, considering that newspaper revenues are fading faster than the public’s respect for Congress. Brill’s company hasn’t identified its clients, but I have to believe McClatchy — the N&O’s owner, and one of the more heavily indebted (and thus financially precarious) journalism companies — is either among them or is considering its own pay plan.

I asked N&O editor John Drescher, via email, whether readers will be asked to pay for access to the new Web site. Drescher is normally reliable in his responses (even if only to say he’s got little to say), but this time he didn’t reply. That silence may be telling.

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Update: After this was posted, Drescher sent me the following note:

We’re exploring several scenarios but no decision has been made.

What matters in that sentence is everything before the “but.” Even accounting for the recent (but slight) improvement in McClatchy’s fortunes, the company has little to lose by putting its Web sites behind a pay wall. Look for it to happen.

4 Responses to “No more free access to the N&O?”

  1. Tyler Dukes Says:

    I sure hope a paid content model isn’t in The News and Observer’s online future.

    The N&O and its counterpart in Charlotte are good news organizations, and I think they benefit North Carolina. But there’s just not enough unique content to make a paid model worth it for readers. After McClatchy’s cutbacks, so much of the N&O’s content is wire copy, national news and the same fare you can get from any of the other news sources in the Triangle.

    Their truly unique, outstanding work — Jim Black, the Easley investigation, etc. — is too few and far between to justify paying for a subscription, especially when there exists a substitute good. And just think how much more exposure that quality work received because the online community shared and discussed it freely.

    Brill’s way around “the substitute good,” of course, is to huddle the news orgs together on the outskirts of antitrust law, hoping to entice enough of them to change the price from what consumers will pay to what consumers should pay.

    That’s not a business model.

  2. Locomotive Breath Says:

    Has someone done the math well enough to understand that people will put up with the annoying ads for free but won’t pay to put up with them. I might be willing to pay for an online version that’s ad free.

  3. NotThatImportant Says:

    Tyler,

    Your argument presupposes a free or lower priced substitute good will always exist. When the laws of economics eventually swallow the business models that don’t produce profits, much of the free content will likely disappear as well. A great deal of the legit journalism that is consumed today from free sites was originally reported and written by journalists who are still employed by a company not unlike the N&O and CO. If they go the way of the DoDo, it is likely that the content currently being provided below the cost of producing it will also become extinct. Once providing content becomes more expensive, the costs will have to be passed along somehow.

    In order for free to triumph, it would have to be produced by people willing to do it for no or little compensation and you’ll get what you pay for. This story has already played out in the world of classified advertising. The battle was won by Craigs List. Imagine the only source of news in the form of Craigs List before answering the question about how much you are willing to pay.

    I don’t know whether the N&O or McClatchy will survive or, if they do, what it would look like in 20 years but I would bet there will still be jobs for journalists and consumers will either pay subscription fees, news organizations will command higher advertising rates on their sites or they will charge more for other sources to provide their content elsewhere. The picture is distorted now because someone can go to yahoo and read about the local judge who took a bribe and figures why would I pay the N&O to be my source for this news when I can get it free at yahoo because the N&O (or the AP who the N&O sold the story to below it’s cost to produce it) let them have it below it’s true value. Actually AP will eventually have to charge more for what they produce (or purchase) when the number of customers they can sell their content to shrinks.

    Imagine if no one was willing to post news for free because the cost of doing so became prohibitive. It may take a while and get ugly along the way but your opening statement gets at the end game “The N&O and its counterpart in Charlotte are good news organizations, and I think they benefit North Carolina…” The perceived value of this benefit will change once the substitute good becomes scarce and expensive.

  4. InTheArena Says:

    What, pray tell, is it that anyone at the N&O thinks they have to sell that they believe anyone would pay for (other than the old schoolers who already continue to subscribe to the print addition?

    News is a commodity.

    Does the N&O truly believe that people, in this day and age, to any degree that would be relevant, are going to pay money to get the opinions poorly disguised as news, or the leftist fantasies of Steve Ford and Jim Jenkins?